The Lily and the Rose
A Poem by William Cowper (1731-1800)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Text With Notes
End Rhyme
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Cowper
Cowper Quotations
Index of Study Guides
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Year

......."The Lily and the Rose," by William Cowper (pronounced KOO per), is a lyric poem centering on two flowers that vie to be queen of the garden. Joseph Johnson first published the poem in London in 1782 in a collection entitled Poems by William Cowper of the Inner Temple, Esq.


.......In an ornamental garden, a lily and a rose are rivals. The rose reddens with rage and contempt for her adversary, and she seeks the approval of poets as queen of the garden. The lily, tall and commanding, has the very look of royalty and seems made for the hand of Flora, the goddess of flowers in Roman mythology. 
.......While the two flowers squabble with each other, Flora overhears them and, before they can destroy each other, intervenes to save them. For they are both the pride of the garden. The rose has the more regal color, Flora says; the lily has the more regal bearing. Therefore, they shall share the title of queen.
.......Thus pacified, the two flowers become friends and reign together before British flower fanciers.

The Lily and the Rose

The nymph must lose her female friend,
If more admired than she—
But where will fierce contention end
If flow'rs can disagree?

Within the garden's peaceful scene
Appear'd two lovely foes,
Aspiring to the rank of queen—
The Lily and the Rose.

The Rose soon redden'd into rage,
And, swelling with disdain,
Appeal'd to many a poet's page
To prove her right to reign.

The Lily's height bespoke command—
A fair imperial flow'r;
She seem'd designed for Flora's1 hand,
The sceptre2 of her pow'r.

The civil bick'ring and debate
The goddess chanc'd to hear,
And flew to save, ere yet too late,
The pride of the parterre.—3

Yours is, she said, the nobler hue,
And yours the statelier mien,4
And, till a third surpasses you,
Let each be deem'd a queen.

Thus, sooth'd and reconcil'd, each seeks
The fairest British fair;
The seat of empire is her cheeks,5
They reign united there. 


1...Flora: Ancient Roman goddess of flowers.
2...sceptre: Scepter, an ornamental rod or staff symbolizing the power and authority of a monarch.
3...parterre: Ornamental garden.
4...mien: Bearing, manner, carriage.
5...cheeks: Delight; pride. 



.......Writers, painters, sculptors, opera stars, ballerinas, fashion designers, athletes, magicians, army generals, and others in the limelight sometimes become bitter rivals of accomplished competitors. Examples were the intense rivalries between heavyweight boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the 1970s; between British General Bernard Law Montgomery and the Allied commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, during World War II; and the ideological rivalry between writer and political commentator William F. Buckley, a conservative, and his liberal counterpart. Gore Vidal, between 1968 and 2008 (when Buckley died). Sometimes rivalries develop between two sports teams, between two countries, and between one system of knowledge and another—science and religion, for example. 
.......Cowper universalizes the theme of his poem by focusing on the rivalry between two flowers, the lily and the rose. These flowers symbolize competing humans who stoop to envy and jealousy in their struggle to come out on top. Flora symbolizes the pacifier who brings the two competitors together.

Diplomacy and Peacemaking 

.......When the Roman goddess of flowers intervenes, she uses skillful diplomacy to pacify the lily and the rose, noting that they each have outstanding qualities and therefore can each become queen of the garden.

End Rhyme

.......The rhyme scheme of the poem is abab. The first stanza demonstrates the pattern.

The nymph must lose her female friend,
If more admired than she
But where will fierce contention end
If flow'rs can disagree?


.......The poem alternates between iambic tetrameter (four feet) and iambic trimeter (three feet). The first two lines demonstrate the pattern.

The NYMPH..|..must LOSE..|..her FE..|..male FRIEND,

If MORE..|..ad MIRED..|..than SHE

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


The nymph must lose her female friend (line 1)
But where will fierce contention end (line 3)
The Rose soon redden'd into rage (line 9)
She [the lily] seem'd designed for Flora's hand,
The sceptre of her pow'r. (lines 15-16)
Comparison of the lily to a scepter
Appeal'd to many a poet's page (line 11)
Page represents poems.
The rose and the lily are compared to human beings throughout the poem.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write your own poem about a conflict in nature that symbolizes a human conflict. 
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem and a ballad?
  • Write an informative essay that evaluates Cowper's influence on later poets. 
  • What are other examples of alliteration besides those listed above?